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Did you know that the difference between drug distribution charges and drug possession charges could be 40 years in prison and over $95,000 in fines? Like most other states, Virginia treats drug crimes seriously. However, there are significant differences between the penalties for drug distribution and drug possession. 

Keep reading to learn more about the differences in drug distribution and drug possession charges, what the penalties are for each, and how you can beat the charges. 

Classification of Controlled Substances

Before we get into the differences between drug possession and drug distribution charges, it’s important to understand how the state of Virginia classifies drugs, as this will impact the determination of charges and penalties. 

They are categorized into 5 different groups based on their medical qualities and their likelihood of abuse. The drugs with the most serious penalties are listed first. 

Schedule I drugs have a high potential for abuse and there are no medical uses for them. Drugs included here are heroin, ecstasy, LSD, and marijuana (marijuana has its own separate possession with intent to distribute statutes though)

Schedule II drugs are also addictive and often abused, but some of them have legitimate medical purposes. Schedule II drugs include methamphetamine, cocaine, morphine, PCP, and methadone (which is often used to help addicts withstand the effects of drug withdrawals when trying to get clean). 

Schedule III drugs could result in dependency and abuse, but that risk is not as high as some other drugs. Drugs included in this category are codeine, some barbiturates, depressants, and anabolic steroids. 

Schedule IV drugs have even less potential for abuse and dependency and they do have accepted medical purposes when used as prescribed. Schedule IV drugs include Valium, Xanax, and other sedatives. 

Finally, Schedule V drugs have very low potential for addiction or abuse. Included here is cough medicine that contains codeine and other over-the-counter medications. 

Drug Distribution vs. Drug Possession Charges

Simple drug possession means you were caught with a small amount of drugs. Typically, the belief is that you possess these drugs for your own personal use, and as such, your punishment is not as severe. 

Drug distribution charges, however, typically called “possession with intent to deliver” means you have large quantities of drugs that you intend to sell. 

To determine if you intend to distribute the drugs in your possession, prosecutors consider several factors, including: 

1. The Quantity of Drugs in Your Possession 

If you are in possession of a small number of drugs, it is unlikely you’ll be charged with possession with intent to deliver. If you have a small amount, you can often argue that they were for your own use only, not for distribution or sale. 

However, if you are found to be in possession of a large quantity, the assumption is that you plan to distribute them, and you’ll have to successfully argue in court that the drugs were for personal use only. This is where an experienced Fairfax criminal defense attorney comes into play.

2. Possessing Large Sums of Money 

Having large sums of money on you is not suspicious by itself, but combined with large quantities of drugs and a few other things we’ll discuss below, it can indicate that you’ve already distributed some of the drugs. A large amount of cash indicates that the drugs are for sale and not just for your own use.

In addition to confiscating the drugs, law enforcement will take the cash as well.

3. How the Drugs Are Packaged

Large quantities of drugs broken into smaller units and packaged individually can also indicate a plan to distribute the drugs. Heroin, for example, is usually packaged in a stamp bag, which is a waxed packet or small plastic bag stamped with the dealer’s logo or the name of the drug. A stamp bag often has about one-tenth of a gram of heroin in it.  

4. Possession of Drug Paraphernalia Used for Distribution

Possessing things such as scales, razor blades, small baggies, or other common drug packaging materials can also be used to argue that you plan to distribute the drugs.


Another significant difference between drug distribution and drug possession charges are the penalties. The most serious penalties are for possession with intent to deliver schedule I or schedule II drugs. 

For your first offense distributing a schedule I or II drug, Virginia laws specify a sentence of between 5 and 40 years in prison and a fine up to $500,000. If it’s a second offense, the minimum sentence is 3 years in prison with a possibility of five years to life in prison and a fine up to $500,000.

The penalties for meth have their own statute, even though it is considered a schedule II drug. You can get between 5 and 40 years for a first offense and a fine up to $500,000. A second conviction could bring 10 years to life in prison.

The penalties for possession of a schedule I or II drug is considered a class 5 felony and could land you 1-10 years in prison and a fine of up to $2,500. 

The Bottom Line

The best way to fight drug distribution or drug possession charges is to hire a criminal defense attorney who has experience in defending persons accused of drug crimes. They can examine the case, determine if anyone acted improperly, and help you mount the proper defense or negotiate a favorable plea bargain for you. 

If you are in need of an attorney, contact our office today for a free consultation. We handle drug cases in Fairfax County and throughout Northern Virginia. 

Areas of Practice

  • Criminal Law
  • Traffic Violations
  • Reckless Driving
  • Felonies and Misdemeanors

Bar Admissions

  • Virginia, 1985
  • District of Columbia, 1987
  • U.S. District Court Eastern District of Virginia, 1985
  • U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia, 1987
  • U.S. Court of Appeals 4th Circuit, 1985
  • U.S. Court of Appeals District of Columbia Circuit
  • U.S. Court of Federal Claims


  • University of Virginia School of Law, Charlottesville, Virginia
    • J.D. - 1985
  • Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
    • B.A. magna cum laude - 1982
    • Honors: Phi Beta Kappa
    • Major: Economics & Philosophy
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